Hunter killers practice beneath the waves
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On May 4, NATO navies kicked off a major war game—nicknamed Dynamic Mongoose 2015—in the Norwegian Sea. In the wake of two serious and very real undersea incidents, the alliance’s submarines, warships and warplanes are in the waters off Norway honing their sub-hunting skills.
More than a dozen subs, surface ships patrol planes and research vessels from more than 10 countries are training together in the frigid northern waters.
This training is necessary because “anti-submarine warfare is very tedious” and “very hard to do,” Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and the author of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World said.
“[It’s] more like an art than a science.”
NATO has run similar drills over the past three years, but this latest iteration of Dynamic Mongoose is the largest so far and recent events have added a certain urgency to the event.
On April 28, the Finnish navy lobbed six small, hand grenade-sized depth charges — warning shots — at a possible submarine off the coast of Helsinki. More than six months earlier, Swedish ships and aircraft had also gone on the hunt for a submersible craft in the Stockholm Archipelago.
In both cases, observers and analysts suggested these undersea “contacts” could have been Russian submarines.
Neither Sweden nor Finland is a member of NATO, but the incidents still alarmed the European military bloc. With Russia’s increasingly aggressive policies, “a lot of countries are running scared,” Wertheim told War Is Boring.
During the Cold War, NATO navies spent considerable time and effort making sure they could find and destroy Moscow’s submarines—especially massive Typhoon-class subs loaded with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
But after the Soviet Union collapsed, budget cuts hit many of the alliance’s members and forced governments to scale back military operations. “Anti-submarine warfare was not seen as the priority it once was,” Wertheim said. “Things have changed.”
Tensions between NATO and the Kremlin were high without the recent undersea incidents. These possible Russian submarine incursions could be Moscow “trying to figure out where those weaknesses are in NATO,” Werthiem added.
The alliance realizes “that [anti-submarine] skill gap is something that needs to be made up.”
Regardless of whether the Russians are becoming more active off the alliance’s coastlines, submarines will continue to be important in peacetime and in war for the foreseeable future.
In 1982, the British submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands War, effectively keeping the rest of Buenos Aires’ navy in port.
Five years ago, the world got another shock when a North Korean submarine sank the South Korean gunboat ROKS Cheonan.
Submarines are “very relevant in peacetime” too, Wertheim explained. Many navies decline to say much about their underwater warriors because the ships can spy so effectively and covertly on potential opponents.
So NATO forces are currently preparing to “be ready to effectively respond to potential submarine threats to any of our … allies,” U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Brad Williamson said.
The training area—some than 700 miles north of Oslo and less than 1,000 miles from the Russian Northern Fleet’s home base—is a “realistic environment,” Royal Navy Capt. Iain Breckenridge, deputy chief of NATO Submarine Command added.
In the past, submarines would both go “hunting” and be “hunted” during the drills, according to a NATO press release from the first Dynamic Mongoose event. The ships and other forces taking part in this latest exercise will go through similar maneuvers.
American, German and Norwegian sub are taking part. Germany and Norway both operate modern—and quiet—diesel-electric boats. The U.S. Navy is one of the few NATO members to operate nuclear-powered submarines.
But any “silent service” is costly to maintain, the vessels require highly trained crews. Berlin is still building new boats, but Oslo’s Ula-class vessels—also assembled in Germany—are more than 20 years old.
Sweden—technically neutral, but historically friendly to the alliance—has also sent their own advanced diesel-electric HSwMS Gotland to the event. Cruisers, frigates and corvettes—and their on-board helicopters—make up the bulk of the hunting party above the waves.
French and German Atlantique patrol planes fly above from Sola Air Base west of Oslo. The 30-year old warriors highlight the particular deficit that NATO faces when it comes to airborne maritime scouts.
Most notably, the United Kingdom decided not to buy improved Nimrod patrol aircraft in 2010, leaving that country without any aerial sub hunters at all. While the Royal Navy announced plans to make up this shortfall a year later, the Ministry of Defense has yet to make a final decision.
On top of the warships and aircraft, the NATO Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation also plans to show off “autonomous security networks,” Ryan Goldhahn, NATO’s top scientist at the practice sessions, said.
We don’t know what these systems consist of, but they could involve advanced, computerized sonar arrays or even underwater drones. As European defense budgets shrink, NATO members have to find ways to make up for manpower shortages.
For instance, computers—which don’t get tired or suffer hearing loss—could scan for specific noises, Wertheim pointed out. In the end, a machine might be able to more reliably separate submarine propellers from other background noises such as whales.
But the nature of submarine warfare means the alliance will keep much of the exercise secret. NATO doesn’t want to reveal all of its undersea tricks — least of all to the Kremlin.